Muslim Televangelists Inspire Revival in the Arab World ~ Praxis Habitus - On Race Religion & Culture

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Muslim Televangelists Inspire Revival in the Arab World

Doing the background research for Hollywood Faith, I saw how the history of religion and media is almost entirely Christian history. This past weekend's New York Times provides a glimpse at how religious media is diversifying in a story about a new brand of religious programming -- Muslim Televangelists.

Spiritual Biography Inspires Religious Revival

As a college student in Long Beach, California, Ahmad al-Shugairi lost his religion. Handsome, athletic, and wealthy, he stopped praying and started pursuing alcohol and women. After marriage, he shifted and became hyper-religious. He was so extreme in his practices that his marriage ended in divorce.

Later, through the study of Islamic theology in Saudi Arabia, he found a way to appreciating tolerance, diversity, and new ideas through his religion.

Shugairi's story of backsliding and re-conversion fuels his preaching a revitalized--and more moderate--form of Islam. According to The New York Times, he's part of a growing group of Muslim media celebrities promoting forms of Islam more connected to the modern world while stimulating revival.

Rise of Muslim Media

The rise of religious programming among Muslims is fascinating and presents a great opportunity for researchers. While Christian media has often been considered a crass form of marketing to gullible viewers, a more broad view shows that religion always takes advantage of new media technology.

The faithful of all religions feel the responsibility to pass along their faith to the uninitiated (whether children, friends, or strangers). Mass media are excellent channels for passing along the faith. And when we recognize non-Christian religious media, we may begin to appreciate the dynamics of media and religion aside from past stereotypes and prejudices.

The time is ripe for a comparative, context-sensitive study of televised religious media.

The Times writes,
Mr. Shugairi is a rising star in a new generation of “satellite sheiks” whose religion-themed television shows have helped fuel a religious revival across the Arab world. Over the past decade, the number of satellite channels devoted exclusively to religion has risen from 1 to more than 30, and religious programming on general interest stations, like the one that features Mr. Shugairi’s show, has soared.
What accounts for their popularity? According to the article,
Mr. Shugairi and others like him have succeeded by appealing to a young audience that is hungry for religious identity but deeply alienated from both politics and the traditional religious establishment, especially in the fundamentalist forms now common in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
The explanation here is young adults wanting religion while side-stepping the constraints of tradition. But the article also mentions Shugairi's preaching as a form of entertainment:
[H]e worked the crowd as masterfully as any preacher, drawing rounds of uproarious laughter and, as he recalled the Prophet Muhammad’s death, silent tears.... When he finished, the packed concert hall erupted in a wild standing ovation.
Shugairi, who earned an MBA while in California, says that Islam is “an excellent product that needs better packaging.”

Religious Media Opportunity Means Criticism

Opportunity results in criticism as the article notes how old school clerics see Shugairi as Islam-lite. And the non-religious are not his fans either. According to the article, non-religious Arabs are concerned with ministries like Shugairi's spreading a new form of Islamization among educated elites.
Image of the ka'aba in Makkah.Image via Wikipedia
Hearing about the enthusiasm of Muslims to Shugairi's message reminds me of the appreciation I constantly heard for the re-framing of tradition in interviews in innovative congregations for my own research. The criticisms feel familiar also.

I've written a bit on this blog about the recent controversy over Rick Warren, and it strikes me that the criticisms of Shugairi mirror those of Warren and others committed to a more contemporary expression of religion. (I've written much more on the ministries of pastors Erwin McManus of Mosaic and Philip Wager of Oasis).

One key question the extent to which this new Muslim media is a form of religion only for young adults. In my own conversations, people think of new religious media as mostly reaching younger generations. Yet, even in ministries that cater to young adults, enthusiastic older adults are often integral to the ministry. Older enthusiasts don't tend to attract as much attention. We need to understand them more, especially as the Baby Boom continues to age at the same time that new congregations often focus their outreach on those in their 20s and 30s.

The article also points out that not all Muslim media is moderate. Of course, we know conservatives and extremists (of all relligious brands) readily take up media as well. So, media is not automatically liberal or liberalizing. It is also used to further promote fundamentalism broadly (and often quite cheaply).

What do you think?


kudo451 said...

Probably the only thing I might take issue with in the article is the assumptive idea that media is not always liberalizing. Granted it may not begin that way but the truth is all change is in some way liberalizing. This is not to say that change or any liberalizing effects new media may have is innately bad, however I think it is important to point out that it is a reality.

With new media there is nothing inherently fundamental or liberal. However, it is by definition in no way traditional. In fact new media does exact fresh parameters on whatever content anyone may choose to share through it. This is not to say that these new parameters effective themselves on content from a philosophical or idealistic way, because in fact the changes that often occur do so from a technical purview more than from any other slant. Nevertheless, the changes are real and palatable to any such content and in the end will effect how that content is shared.

Television is a great example. Compared to the traditional church or mosque (which technically are also visual mediums of a more three-dimensional nature), emphasis can shift dramatically depending on the medium. How well any content may do through television will pertain to how well that content is applied to a television perspective. This fact alone shifts the onus of communication from the evangelist to the director. It also means that the focus on the traditional audience for a televangelist moves from the evident one in front of him to the electronic one that he just can’t see. In point of fact the existing audience actually becomes part of the show—with both their knowledge and consent. Whatever the message is, it is also being told by the camera angles, the cut-away shots, the editing and the graphics.

Time also becomes a much more important issue. All new media is inherently more expensive. Also, more visual mediums can’t hold the attention span of the audience as long as older forms often do. The content changes, like abridging a book to fit in a magazine article. In comparison to the very real and tangible church or mosque experience it can be easy to see why critics often refer to either experience as inadequate or ‘lite’. Yet with time as strong a factor as it is today, the popularity of the televangelist experience is also understandable.

Technicians also become part of the team it takes to share a message. Adding to or replacing more traditional roles of confidants for those tasked with the sharing of a message. For their part it is evident that while they may or may not believe in the message they do play a large factor in its expression because of their expertise. Given the non-traditional factors and effects on content and expression it is hard to see how new media wouldn’t have some effect on traditional content in that way eventually have a liberalizing effect on anything expressed through it.

Gerardo Marti said...

Thank you for your thoughtful remarks.